From the very first scene, viewers of American Made know what they are getting themselves into as Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) deliberately startles the sleeping passengers on board by taking the plane he is piloting off autopilot. Seal is not a character who cares about danger or other people’s lives — he just wants to have fun. And he has an awful lot of fun. Doug Liman’s (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) new film strikes a different tone from his usual action-oriented fare as it tells the unbelievable story of the CIA’s involvement in Central America during the 1980s. The result is an entertaining, fast-paced movie that unfortunately fails to appropriately deal with the somewhat sensitive topic it addresses.
The film centers around Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who is selected by the CIA to take photos of communist insurgents in Central America. The story moves briskly as Seal graduates from reconnaissance to gunrunning and finally finds himself smuggling drugs. Along the way, he encounters a famous cast of characters, including the founding members of Medellin Cartel, General Manuel Noriega, and the Oliver North. Seal’s story involves him double and triple crossing his various benefactors and business partners in pursuit of the one thing that matters most— money. He is played by an always entertaining Tom Cruise, who characterizes him with the same reckless exuberance that he had as Maverick in Top Gun. I think that Cruise is at his best in these kinds of roles where he can let loose, and, to paraphrase Cruise’s Seal, “leap before he looks.”
As his life becomes more profitable and surreal, Seal becomes more and more greedy. At one point, the police raid his home for drug possession, and the CIA responds by buying him his own airport in a new state. Despite the FBI, DEA and ATF being after Seal, he is untouchable. He is aided by a CIA agent only known as Schafer played by a bitterly disappointing Domhnall Gleeson. Gleeson gives his character zero defining attributes, performs the lines he is given as though he has just seen them, and often appears confused as to just how he ended up on this movie set. Gleeson is a supremely talented actor, and it was a shame to see him phone-in this performance.
The story of this film is nothing short of absurd. Each twist of the tale launches the story further and further into the realm of parody. It makes zany comedies like Burn After Reading look downright realistic. The content of the story is entertaining and, honestly, very funny, but it is also very real. Liman’s approach to this story is lighthearted and comedic – there is never a point for reflection over the very real atrocities committed during this period by the cast of characters in the film. Liman is obviously critical of the US government’s foreign policy in Central America, but shows them as a group of bumbling bureaucrats and fails to capture the malice in their actions.
And if the criticism of the US government is ineffectual, it is nonexistent in the case of the Barry Seal. Seal is well-aware of his actions and their moral standing, but there is no attempt to reflect on these issues. American Made provides no point of view for those who suffered under the dictatorial governments that the US propped up or the thousands who died in the War on Drugs. Barry Seal simply views it as a sign of the greatness of America that such an amoral lifestyle could have amassed him such a fortune. Perhaps it is the case that comedy really is tragedy plus time, but many of the repercussions of these events are in media res and this movie can be seen as tone deaf in that regard. There is no denying that American Made is entertaining, in fact, it is quite a fun watch, but this film will make you question just who it is you are rooting for.